The Philip K. Dick Award has long been my favorite genre honor that isn’t the Hugo or Nebula. If the “big two” are analogous to the People’s Choice Awards and the Oscars, respectively, think of the PKD as a sort of Independent Spirit Award—eligible works are original novels published first in paperback within the prior calendar year. Though the economics of publishing are ever in flux, “paperback originals” are often when new movements in sci-fi get their start (William Gibson’s Neuromancer, which pushed cyberpunk into the mainstream, won the PKD is 1984) and new authors are free to write crazy ambitious books (Richard K. Morgan’s PDK-winning debut Altered Carbon won in 2002; next month Netflix launches it as a major new TV series).
The list of nominees for this year’s award is no less exciting, spanning the breadth of what sci-fi can do, from a locked room mystery set on a spaceship filled with clones to a contemporary answer to the dystopia of The Handmaid’s Tale. Below is the full list, and you’d do well to sample all of them before the winner is announced on March 30. With such a diverse array of ideas and subgenres on display, you may not love them all, but they all will challenge you to expand your horizons and consider new ideas.
The Book of Etta, by Meg Elison
Elison won the PDK in 2014 for The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, a dystopian tale that imagines the terrible ordeals women would face in a world devastated by a plague that has left one female living for every ten males, presenting an even bleaker landscape than the one presented in The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a book that has lost none of its potency or immediacy in the three years since, to say the least, and it’s no surprise, in a year in which women have started speaking out (or at least, being listened to when speaking out) against the harassment they face every day and an adaptation of a Margaret Atwood novel is winning every award out there, that Elison’s second book in the series would be a contender. Etta is a scavenger from one of the small communities to survive the plague, roaming the country searching for relics from the past. When people Etta cares about are abducted by roving bands of slave traders, Etta must venture into an area controlled by a despot known as Lion, who rules the apocalyptic landscape with cruelty. The book goes beyond its compelling dystopian atmosphere via the title character, called Eddy when on the road—a transgender man in a world that values female fertility above all else.
Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty
A locked-room mystery nestled comfortably inside a big-idea sci-fi premise, this interstellar page-turner builds a compelling future world of human clones and interstellar travel, and rewrites the rules of the crime novel accordingly. Societal and climate collapse drives humanity to send 2,000 cryo-frozen people to a distant, Earth-like planet on a ship crewed by six criminals who volunteer to be cloned again and again as they shepherd their precious cargo to its final destination. Every time the crew is cloned, they maintain their collective memories. When they wake up at the beginning of the novel, however, their former bodies are dead—brutally murdered in various ways; the ship is in shambles (gravity is off, the controlling artificial intelligence is offline, and they’re off-course); and their memories (and all other records) have been erased. The six have to clean up the mess—but they also have to figure out who killed them and why, and how to survive within a paranoid pressure-cooker of a ship. Lafferty steadily ramps up the tension from the jarring first pages to the nail-biting conclusion.
After the Flare, by Deji Bryce Olukotun
Another sequel, After the Flare continues in the setting of Olukotun’s Nigerians in Space. When a catastrophic solar flare strikes Earth, all electrical grids are fried and society is thrown into chaos. The only country left with a functioning space program turns out to be Nigeria, which must quickly mobilize to launch a mission to save those onboard the International Space Station, even as fried satellites threaten to bombard the planet like interstellar missiles. Meanwhile, Nigeria is being targeted by dangerous biological hacking tech, militant Islamic groups are marching on the space program’s HQ, and the lure of functioning industry has attracted the criminal element from around the continent—even as very old, possibly alien technology is discovered buried deep underground. Olukotun’s series flips western sci-fi conventions on their head in this series, which is as much about exploring questions of power and identity as it is telling a ripper good thriller yarn.
The Wrong Stars, by Tim Pratt
The White Raven crew and its captain, Kalea “Callie” Machedo, make a living running freight and claiming salvage on the edges of the solar system. When they run across a centuries-old exploration ship, it seems like a stroke of luck—until they discover a single female crew member in cryosleep onboard. Callie makes the decision to wake the woman, Elena, from suspension, and she tells them a desperate tale of first contact with an alien race. It’s up to the White Raven crew to inform her that humanity made contact a long time ago—but Elena reveals she encountered a different alien race, and they left her with gifts—gifts that could determine the future of the human race, or it lack thereof. With a diverse cast of engaging characters, an intriguing mystery plot, and a healthy dose of humor, this is the perfect readalike for fans of Firefly or Becky Chambers’ A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, and one of the best space opera surprises of 2017.
Revenger, by Alastair Reynolds
Reynolds asks a question not often answered in sci-fi: what comes after the empire? Set in a distant future that has seen great galactic civilizations rise—and fall—Revenger tells the story of Captain Rackamore and his crew of grave-robbers-cum-salvage artists. They locate forgotten planets, ancient dead worlds sealed within layers of security, crack them open, and search for lost technology and resources others will pay handsomely for. Rackamore and crew try to do the job with a dash of ethics, a novel notion in this wild universe. His two newest crew members—sisters who have turned stowaway in a quest for more exciting livesand to save their family from bankruptcy—are caught up in an adventure far more dangerous than they could have expected. Ancient weapons, dead civilizations, and revenge fuel this sci-fi twist on a Robert Louis Stevenson adventure, delivering Reynolds’ most accessible book yet.
Bannerless, by Carrie Vaughn
Vaughn delivers a tightly-plotted sci-fi mystery set in a future after The Fall, a series of devastating plagues and ecological disasters that left civilization broken and most culture and technology lost. In California, people live in a loose confederation of towns where families produce only what they need, and where procreation must be approved by the local Town Council—symbolized by the awarding of a banner to the house. Investigator Enid travels to the town of Pasadan to look into the death of an unpopular handyman named Sero. She encounters such aggressive disinterest in Sero’s killer, she’s driven to dig deeper, even as memories from her own past bubble to the surface. What she and her partner discover in Pasadan might have the power to shake the foundations of this fragile world.
All Systems Red, by Martha Wells
This novella marked a change for past Nebula Award nominee Martha Wells, who had a two-decade career writing inventive fantasy (the gaslit magic series Ile-Rien; the fantasticly odd Books of the Raksura, in which no human main characters appear) before trying her hand at sci-fi with this sardonic story of a slightly depressed robot who grudgingly protects the humans in its charge. “Murderbot” (as it dubs itself) it would despise the humans it protects if it didn’t find them so boring, and would prefer to stream mindless soap operas rather than do anything at all to help them, but when its humans are attacked by something outside of the experience provided by its data banks, , it must turn its prickly, near-omniscient mind toward not just the survival of its humans, but itself. This slim read is both surprisingly funny and pack with intriguing future worldbuilding, all the more reason to celebrate the sequels due later in the year.
What’s at the top of your PKD ballot?